by Dennis Crouch
As public universities continue to obtain more patents, issues of sovereign immunity continue to arise. In a recent decision, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) dismissed a trio of inter partes review proceedings against the University of Florida based upon its claim of sovereign immunity.
The 11th Amendment to the US Constitution limited the “Judicial power of the United States” so that it does not “extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.” Although the text of the amendment appear to include several important limitations that might exclude an administrative action (“judicial power; “suit in law or equity”), the Supreme Court has broadly interpreted the statute precluding many adjudicative administrative proceedings. For anyone who is not an American lawyer, you may need to pause here to recognize that each of the 50 American states are treated as sovereign governments and, although the Federal Government sets the “supreme law of the land,” its powers are limited by the U.S. constitution and federalist structure.
The Supreme Court has interpreted this amendment to encompass a broad principle of sovereign immunity, whereby the Eleventh Amendment limits not only the judicial authority of the federal courts to subject a state to an unconsented suit, but also precludes certain adjudicative administrative proceedings, depending on the nature of those proceedings, from adjudicating complaints filed by a private party. Following Supreme Court precedent from other areas of law, the Federal Circuit held in Vas-Cath that Missouri’s sovereign immunity allowed it to avoid an interference proceeding.
The petitioner Covidien argued that the PTAB should think of the IPR as an in rem action directed at the patent rather than at the patent owner. However, the PTAB rejected that argument – finding that the procedural elements of inter partes reviews and estoppel provisions make it look much like contested litigation – the very thing protected by the 11th Amendment.
On the whole, considering the nature of inter partes review and civil litigation, we conclude that the considerable resemblance between the two is sufficient to implicate the immunity afforded to the States by the Eleventh Amendment. Although there are distinctions, such as in the scope of discovery, we observe that there is no requirement that the two types of proceedings be identical for sovereign immunity to apply to an administrative proceeding. Further, we note that there are several similarities between civil litigation and inter partes review that are not unlike those compared in Vas-Cath for interferences.
Outcome here – Dismissed before Institution based on Sovereign Immunity of the patentee. Moving forward it will be interesting to see whether the Federal Circuit is willing to hear an appeal or instead apply the standard law that institution decisions are not subject to appeal.
The dispute between the parties extends back to a license agreement between UFL and Medtronic/Covidien of the patent at issue. UFL exerted its right to audit the books, but was refused by Medtronic. UFL then sued in state court on the contract. Medtronic counterclaimed for DJ of invalidity/noninfringement and removed the case to federal court on the patent claims and on diversity grounds. The district court however remanded back to state court on sovereign immunity grounds. That remand is now on appeal at the Federal Circuit, although the court has just issued a show-cause – asking whether the case should be transferred to the 11th Circuit. Under the AIA-revised statute, cases go to the Federal Circuit if either the civil action “arises under” US patent law or a “compulsory counterclaim” arises under patent law. Here, it is clear that the counterclaim is a patent claim, but the big question is whether it is “compulsory” – normally defined as one that “arises out of the transaction or occurrence that is the subject matter of the opposing party’s claim.”
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 See Covidien LP v. University of Florida Research Foundation Inc., Case Nos. IPR 2016-01274; -01275, and -01276 (PTAB January 25, 2017).
 U.S. CONST. amend. XI.
 Vas-Cath, Inc. v. Curators of Univ. of Missouri, 473 F.3d 1376 (Fed. Cir. 2007).
 Fed. R. Civ. P. 13(a)(1)(A).
 28 U.S.C. § 1631.